I pounded some lamb steaks I’d bought for lamb cutlets. Dipped them in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs. When they were what Julia Childs called nicely coated, I put them aside and peeled four potatoes. I cut them into little egg-shaped oblongs, which took a while, and started cooking them in a little oil, rolling them around to get them brown all over. I also started the cutlets in another pan. When the potatoes were evenly browned I covered them, turned down the heat, and left them to cook through. When the cutlets had browned, I poured off the fat, added some Chablis and some fresh mint, covered them and let them cook. Susan came out into the kitchen once to make two new drinks. I made a Greek salad with feta cheese and ripe olives and Susan set the table while I took the lamb cutlets out of the pan and cooked down the wine. I shut off the heat, put in a lump of unsalted butter, swirled it through the wine essence and poured it over the cutlets. With the meal we had warm Syrian bread and most of a half gallon of California Burgundy.
That, my friends, is from Robert B. Parker’s 1976 novel Promised Land – winner of the Edgar for Best Novel in 1977 – and, while out of era for this blog, when I read it the other day it suddenly helped crystallise a great deal of my feelings on the whole plot/character subject.
Now, from both a plot and character perspective, that entire paragraph is redundant – it provides no insight, no deeper sense of appreciation of the plotting or the characters involved, it isn’t one of those moments where a parallel thread is suddenly clarified (“I suddenly realised that the body must have been coated in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs – the killer was clearly a chef!”), and contains no misdirection that cleverly obfuscates the real meaning behind a set of actions. If you changed every aspect of that recipe, or even removed that entire paragraph from the book, it would make no difference beyond streamlining the contents of the book to those things which are simply relevant to the plot and people involved.
Yes, there is an argument that, by detailing the efforts gone to in preparing the meal, we are learning a lot about our narrator – the care he takes in preparing his food is a sign of the caution he uses in his everyday life, or of the attention to detail that makes him such a great detective, etc. – and so in that way it serves a purpose. And that would be fine if there wasn’t also a second extended description of food preparation provided later on, and a very detailed passage in which we are talked through every aspect of the narrator’s workout in a gym which equally talks us through a series of actions without any purpose behind them for either a story or character (his physical prowess and strength having already been established narratively through both speech – he talks about knowing another character because they both boxed professionally on the same card years before – and action – that is, he gets in a fight – earlier in the book).
Let’s be clear – this is not me having a go at Robert B. Parker; his books are a lot of fun, but they do help explain why my interest in crime fiction tails off so rapidly once the 1950s come to an end. More of this kind of thing starts to creep in – how many crime novels do you read where the details of a commute are written down, simply to get a character from one point to another, for instance? In the 1930s the notion of car or train travel had an aura of exoiticism to it, but these days everyone knows what driving a car is like, and such travelogues provide nothing to those of use who aren’t looking to follow the exact same route for…whatever reason.
As a counter-point, take the following from a novel published in 1941:
Dinner that night at The Firs was the worst meal I have ever experienced in my life: the poorest in quality of food and the most uncomfortable in atmospheric tension. About what we ate, or were invited to eat, it impairs my appetite even now to think for long. I still don’t know who conceived the combination of thick white soup, Irish stew, and suet pudding as fare in August: presumably either Mrs Steele herself or Olive, the housekeeper. Mrs Pippit was definitely to blame for the fact that the stew seemed composed mainly of pepper and boiled beans skins, though, and my initial dislike of her increased. As for the soup and the suet, they appeared to be the same thing in different stages of evolution, and probably were.
There’s arguably a similar level of detail about the food there, but just look how much more is done with it, how much more you can tell about that narrator both in terms of his pompousness and his humour. In addition to that, it gives a glimpse of the tension in the house, the competency of the other people involved, and lays the groundwork for some potentially unreliable narration where the opinions are jumped to with regard to characters without any direct experience of them (poor Mrs Pippit…). The meal is even relevant due to its unsuitability to the season, and again provides an opportunity for character insight by having them praise or condemn it accordingly.
The usual caveats apply – at the very least I could be guilty of cherry-picking my books to make my case (in point of fact, I simply took a book that I knew contained some scenes of characters eating and flicked through until I reach the first one) – and any number of contrary examples can be found, but the point remains: the second example there provides so much more that is arguably important – change the quality of the food, or have the narrator rhapsodising on the choice of inappropriately stodgy dishes for a warm month, and a different spin can be taken out of it (even if not immediately – you may need a common sense character to point out the awfulness of it later on, but that still sets up something to reflects back on the narrator and potentially changes our opinion of him).
This is not the kind of character-work I object to, because it throws in so many options for development in both plot and character streams, and this is usually the kind of thing I mean when I talk about the character-work done in the books I enjoy (I’ll tell you now that the second example above comes from Sealed Room Murder by Rupert Penny, an author of whom I count myself a massive fan because of how consistently he does this kind of thing). There’s a point where you stop providing atmosphere or bringing anything pertinent to your story and instead you’re just filling up space with details the plot does not require – often at the expense of your characters, too, who are required to info-dump in order to fit this kind of thing in.
Wow, I am barely scratching the surface of what I want to get at, and I’m already 1,300 words down; I’ll follow my own advice and stop adding things at this stage, but please feel free to chip in with your thoughts ahead of the next installment. Doubtless one of you will make my point far more eloquently, elegantly, succinctly, and memorably, and so save us all having to go through this again next week.